FROM NORTH TO SOUTH - Delicious! How Italy eats...

The topic Mangiare is elementary in Italy. It's a question of lifestyle and enjoyment. In Bella Italia, food not only fills you up - food makes you happy. By the way, the influence of pizza and pasta is much smaller than you think...

Italy from north to south, we eat our way through Italian specialities. From the Aosta Valley to Sicily, everything bite-sized in small bites - with Buon Appetito in any case. Attention, spoilers: The "Italian" specialities from Italy's twenty regions are totally different.

milan apericena, italian specialities in lombardy
An aperitif in Milan...
dinner in rimini, italian specialities from emilia-romagna
...a dinner in Rimini

There is not the "one" Italian cuisine

The most important finding about "Italian cuisine": There is no single Italian cuisine! This is due, among other things, to...

  • ...the considerable climatic differences between North and South. In the mountains, you eat a hearty bacon and cream sauce when it's snowing, but of course not when it's 36 degrees in the shade in the south. 
  • ...the geographical conditions. The flat, fertile Po Valley is ideal for livestock and cereal farming, while the barren south by the sea is more suitable for fishing.
  • ...of history. Italy did not become a nation state until 1861. As a result, the individual regional specialities have been preserved over the centuries. 
  • the eagerness of the people from Italy to experiment and enjoy themselves.. They cultivate their recipes, refine them further - over generations.
ice cream cafe, florence, tuscany, ice cream, italian specialities from tuscany
Looks like Gucci, actually "only" an ice cream parlour in Florence...
Italian specialities: The regional differences

Simply put, in the north of Italy there is more beef and pork, while in the south there are more dishes with vegetables, fish, poultry or lamb. Before we get to the specialities of the individual regions, first the rough differences between the north, south and centre of Italy, as well as Sardinia and Sicily.

How the North of Italy Eats

The Italian north has always been relatively prosperous and economically leading compared to the centre and south of the country. The cuisine here is correspondingly rich and substantial in ingredients compared to other Italian specialities. The menus are opulent. 

Unlike most other Italian counterparts, the north has also absorbed traditions from its neighbours. Thus, dishes from France, Austria, Hungary and Slovenia can be found on the regional menus - from goulash to Sacher Torte. 

polenta sweet display mangiare, italian specialities
Polenta in all variations in Lombardy: from sweet...
polenta stone mushrooms hearty with porcini mushrooms, as eaten here in Bergamo

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Italian specialities from the north. Here, one usually roasts with butter (in the south with olive oil). Pot roasts are popular, often prepared with wine and herbs. Northern Italians rarely use tomatoes. In addition to fish from the sea, freshwater fish is often eaten here.

Ravioli with sage and butter, Italian specialities, here from Veneto
Ravioli, here with butter and sage, a delicacy from northern Italy

In some northern regions, pasta and pizza did not exist in the past, but rather dishes with cabbage, maize grits and potatoes (as in the Aosta Valley).

P.S. Whoever thinks that regional cuisines of the North is, however, very much mistaken.... More about that later in the series!

Italian specialities from the centre of the country

Emilia-Romagna is the culinary heart of central Italy. Here, standards are set for the whole of Italy, and many gastronomic trends and well-known "Italian" specialities also come from this region, such as the idea of serving appetisers on spoons.

piadine in emilia-romagna, welcome to italy's regions, italian specialities
Piadine are Italian flatbreads from Romagna, here eaten in Cattolica

Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, parmesan, mortadella, tortellini, ravioli, the Bolognese sauce (which in Italy is ragù is called) - all regional specialities from Emilia-Romagna, which are now known worldwide as "typically Italian". Even if the other regions of central Italy are less well-known, refined dishes are served everywhere.

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bruschette were invented in abbruzzo
Bruschetta was invented in Abruzzo, once a "poor man's food".

Italian specialities from the south. The further south you go, the more often tomato is found in the dishes. In central Italy, it is mainly pork and beef that are eaten. Fish only plays a role on the coast. 


The cuisine of the south

Southern cuisine is simple and original. In the south, there are many dishes with bread and vegetables such as aubergine, artichoke, peppers, courgettes, often vegetarian.

antipasti from campania
A plate of antipasti from Campania: vegetarian and super tasty!

There is hardly any beef in the south, instead lamb, poultry, less frequently pork and, on the coast, fish. 

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pizza with fries
In the south, definitely try it! Pizza with patatine: very, very tasty...

The South made a virtue of its (financial) need and invented dishes that were simple but delicious. Pizza, by the way, is also one of them, but more on that later. 

Island cuisine: Sicily and Sardinia

Although geographically Sicily and Sardinia belong to Italy, they have developed completely independent and different island cuisines. So independent, in fact, that the cuisine of Sardinia has nothing to do with that of Sicily. 

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suckling pig sardinia
"Su Porceddu", Suckling pig in Sardinia
Photo: clemarca/Getty Images via
cannoli with pistachios
Cannoli, a dessert from Sicily
Photo by Anna Guerrero on

For centuries, Sicily was a melting pot of cultures, repeatedly occupied by invaders, while Sardinia was able to cook its own soup, completely undisturbed, next to the mainland for centuries. 

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The Sardinians particularly appreciate game dishes, especially wild boar. Surprisingly, they don't care much for fish dishes. Pork and sheep addiction is also popular. A Sardinian speciality is grilled suckling pig, su Porceddu. Myrtle in particular gives many dishes their typical flavour.

The heart of Sicilian cuisine are fish and seafood, plus a wide range of vegetables from chickpeas to aubergines. Sicilian desserts are sought after throughout Italy. 

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After this rough overview, we now move on to the regional cuisines. Attention: It will be really, really tasty!

Next episode: The hearty north! This is how delicious it tastes in the Aosta Valley


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written by Pietro Perroni, first published 25 June 2022, updated 17 September 2022

Cover picture/Montage - Photos: Kayser/LA BELLA VITA club